Thursday, August 27, 2015

Niceoise salad and memories of kindness

Here's another salad recipe but this time it doesn't come with a side order of complaints about the Irish weather. (Lest you think this means the weather has improved here on the Dingle Peninsula; it's done no such thing. We may have spent the past few weeks crossing our fingers for an Indian summer but those clouds have remained resolutely in our skies.)

No, this salad comes with a more personal story...

My partner Richard is quite a bit older than I am and when we first got together, there was some disapproval from our family and friends. With this as background information, you'll understand why I felt nervous the first time I met Richard's mother. By that stage, she was an old lady in her late seventies and I thought that if anyone were going to react in a judgemental way to our age difference, it was going to be her.

How wrong I was. I came to see that Anne was someone who prized love above all else in this world. She immediately saw and understood the strength of the love we shared. Her eyes shone with happiness for her son and from that moment on, she welcomed me warmly into her family.

She prepared a Niceoise salad for us to eat on the evening of that first visit. It was the first time I'd ever tasted this clever combination of green beans, tuna, anchovies, black olives and eggs but it definitely wasn't the last. It's become one of my go-to recipes for simple suppers ever since.

Anne died in 2007 but whenever I make this salad, I think of her and how kind she was to me on our first meeting.

My memory of Anne Smallwood's Niceoise Salad
This recipe feeds two greedy adults (with some leftovers for lunch the following day). Like all salad recipes, it's pretty adaptable. You can add more or less of any of the ingredients, according to your own preference.

400g small baby potatoes
250g green beans
1 medium-sized green pepper
15 black olives, the small puckered ones are best for flavour
250g tuna in olive oil, brine or water
8 anchovies
4 eggs

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
A pinch of salt

  • Wash the potatoes and place in a saucepan. Sprinkle with salt and cover with boiling water. Simmer over a medium heat until a knife passes through the potatoes with ease. This should take between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on the size of your potatoes. Strain out the water and set aside to cool.
  • Prepare your other ingredients while you're waiting for the potatoes. 
  • Top and tail the beans and then cut them in half.
  • Place them in a saucepan and sprinkle with salt. Add a centimetre or two of boiling water to the pan. Cover with a lid and simmer the beans over a medium to high heat for four minutes or until they are tender but still retain a slight bite.
  • Cut the top off the pepper and scoop out the seeds and pith inside. Cut the flesh into bite-sized pieces.
  • Remove the pits from the olives and cut them in half.
  • Place the eggs in a small saucepan. Cover them with boiling water and simmer over a medium heat for seven minutes. Then place the saucepan in your sink and run cold water over the eggs until they become cool enough to handle. Set aside until it's time for assembly.
  • Make the dressing by adding the olive oil, cider vinegar, honey, mustard and salt to a jam jar, screwing on the lid and shaking the jar vigorously until all the ingredients have combined.
  • Your potatoes ought to have cooked at this stage. You could cut them in three and add them to the salad as they are but I like to fry them in a little olive oil to give them crispy edges. Simply heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add your potato slices and a sprinkling of salt. Wait for a golden crispy skin to develop before turning each slice over and doing the same again.
  • It's time for assembly. Add the beans, potatoes, tuna, olives and green pepper to a salad bowl. Toss together until they are well combined.
  • Peel the eggs by tapping them gently against a chopping board or counter top until cracks appear in the shell. Carefully peel the shell off the egg and cut each egg into quarters. Arrange the eggs and anchovies on top of the salad.
  • It's up to you whether you dress the salad before it is served or not. I usually serve the dressing alongside and allow everyone to add as much or as little as they like.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

My new adventures in seaweed

I've always been intrigued by seaweed. I've taken seaweed baths. I've eaten lots of sushi. I've even purchased books by Irish seaweed gurus, Prannie Rhatigan and Sally McKenna.

I live by the coast and sometimes see neighbours foraging for seaweed along the shoreline. But I've always been nervous about gathering seaweed myself. I felt as though I lacked the knowledge I needed to identify what was safe to eat. I was convinced that I'd end up poisoning myself.

That was until I went on a seaweed foraging with Darach Ó Murchú, an outdoors guide who runs foraging workshops here in West Kerry. He opened my eyes to a whole new edible world along the shoreline. 

I wrote about my adventures in seaweed in Monday's Irish Examiner. You can read all about it here.

My hair may be windswept but at last I know how to identify some of Ireland's best edible seaweeds!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The sun has gone AWOL - this calls for an emergency panzanella salad

This summer has been a little too Irish for my liking. I know it's supposed to rain in this country but does it have to rain so much that we've only been able to have dinner outside three times in the past three months?
I know we're not supposed to swelter under the sun either but did July really have to be one of the coldest on record? Or did it have to be the case that I never once took a walk on the beach without bringing along a fleece-lined jacket for fear of encountering biting Arctic winds?

This is what my walks have looked like this summer. Nice, I know, but where's the sunshine?

This weather has had consequences. Not only is everyone in Ireland at risk of vitamin D deficiency, we've all started to feel grouchy too. We need some sunshine!

I'm not a miracle worker. I can't compel the sun to shine on Ireland. Nor can this recipe promise to make up for our lack of sunshine. All I can do is assure you that its ripe tomatoes, charred red peppers, wrinkled black olives, salty anchovies and heady fragrance of basil will look, smell and taste just like summer on a plate.

Sharon's thrown-together take on a panzanella salad
The following quantities serve two adults. 
Feel free to adjust according to your own taste. If, for example, you don't like anchovies, just leave them out. The salad will still be full of flavour. It may however need a pinch of salt. 

200g of stale sourdough bread (or any other stale bread you've got lying around)
2 medium-sized red peppers
1 tablespoon olive oil
14 plum tomatoes

6 large sun-dried tomatoes
12 or so wrinkled black olives
6 anchovies 
6 large basil leaves
Salt and freshly-ground pepper 

  • Pre-heat your oven to 200C/400F.
  • Wash the peppers, place them on a baking tray and put them in the oven for 25 minutes. Set a timer for 15 minutes so you can use the oven to toast your croutons for the last ten minutes of cooking time.
  • Remove the crust from the bread and chop what remains into chunks measuring approximately 1.5cm squared. (Don't worry too much about accuracy. This is a rough and ready salad.)
  • Pour a tablespoon of olive oil onto a baking tray, tilting the tray so that the oil covers the entire base. Bung in the croutons. Toss them in the oil and give them a liberal sprinkling of salt and pepper.
  • Your timer should have gone off by now. Place the croutons in the oven and bake for ten minutes. By then, you should have crunchy croutons that still retain a satisfyingly chewy texture in the middle. Your peppers should be ready too - charred on the outside with yielding flesh underneath. Set both the croutons and peppers aside to cool and turn off your oven.
  • All that remains to do is chop up your remaining ingredients and add them to your salad bowl. Chop the tomatoes into quarters. 
  • Roughly chop the sun-dried tomatoes.
  • Remove the pits from the olives and cut them in half.
  • Roughly chop the anchovies.
  • Tear up the basil.
  • Peel the charred skin off the peppers and roughly chop the flesh.
  • Add all of these ingredients to a salad bowl, along with the croutons.
  • Add at least half a teaspoon of pepper (about six twists of a pepper grinder) to the salad. 
  • Use your hands or some salad servers to make sure that all of the ingredients are well combined.
  • Taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking. Depending on the quality of your ingredients, you may need more pepper, a touch of salt or a few more basil leaves. (If you like olive oil, you can drizzle some over the salad. Personally, I don't think it needs it.)

{I know that, like the sunshine, I too have been absent from this blog. My apologies. I hope to check in here on a much more regular basis from now on. In the meantime, I wish you sunshine!}

Monday, February 23, 2015

Honesty and emotion on Lena Dunham's Girls and the much-needed comfort of cookies

I've been a fan of the TV series Girls from the very beginning. There have been many moments when Lena Dunham's (sometimes brutally) honest depiction of just how self-absorbed and unaware young women can be struck a chord and made me realise how much I've grown up since my early twenties.

I haven't enjoyed this latest series as much. Or at least I wasn't enjoying it until I watched episode 5.

This is the episode when Hannah returns to New York to find that her boyfriend Adam has moved in with another girl, that she has been replaced in his heart and that his life has moved on without her in it. She reacts in typically over-dramatic Hannah fashion (although, to be fair, I think we'd all be just as dramatic if we discovered that our boyfriend was living with someone else and hadn't bothered to tell us that our relationship was over).

This episode culminates with Hannah and Adam having a heartfelt conversation where they discuss their past relationship and where they now stand with each other in a very open and rational way. They talk about what they had and how it's gone and how they both need to leave it behind and move on to something new - although Adam is obviously more ready to do this than Hannah is.
This entire conversation felt so real to me (though it must be acknowledged that life rarely affords us the opportunity to say exactly what we feel and think at exactly the right time as it does on TV). It touched upon the sadness we all feel when letting go of something that was special; how difficult it is to recognise when the moment is right for us to do this; the loss and heartbreak we feel when someone is no longer a part of our lives; and yet how vital it is that we make that break and move on to better and happier times.

These feelings lived on in me long after I finished watching the show and I needed the comfort of cookies. So I made these almond and ginger cookies.

They're adapted from a Lilly Higgins recipe. (She's a Cork lady and a great baker.)

Makes 10 regular sized cookies
50g olive oil
60g light muscovado sugar
75g almond butter
100g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon bread soda
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
40g ginger nuts (stem ginger)*, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons of the syrup from the stem ginger
40g almonds, roughly chopped
30g sesame seeds 

  • Preheat the oven to 180 C/350F.
  • Line 2 baking trays with parchment paper.
  • Mix the olive oil, sugar, almond butter, flour, soda and ginger in a bowl until well combined.
  • Add the chopped ginger nuts, syrup and chopped almonds and mix again.
  • Roll teaspoons of the dough into balls and then roll the balls in the sesame seeds until they are coated.  
  • Place on the baking tray and flatten slightly. (These cookies don't spread out much while baking.)
  • Bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown.  Allow to cool on the tray and then dig in.

Episode six of Girls shows in Ireland tonight and I've only got one cookie left. Perhaps I need to get baking?

*Some of you have expressed confusion about ginger nuts/stem ginger. They are pictured on the spoon in the photo above and are essentially preserved, candied ginger bottled in a sweet syrup. You'll find them for sale in an increasing number of supermarkets but I often find mine in Middle Eastern stores (where they are cheaper too). 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My week in dinners

I don't know if there was ever a time when food was simple. The ingredients we cook with, the way in which we cook them and how we eat have always been indicators of status. Here in Ireland, the high society who lived in grand houses dined on the finest foods for centuries while peasants subsisted on potatoes, oats and hardy vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, cabbage and kale.

However, I think food has become more complicated in recent years. Turkey Twizzlers or tofu, chia pudding or Coco Pops, sliced pan or artisan sourdough; what you eat has never said more about who you are and how you want others to see you.

Food bloggers have certainly had a part to play in this. We all work hard to style our food photos to make them look as appealing as possible. Everything from the dish the meal is served in to the artfully-placed green herb placed on top has been carefully considered.  The words and images we use convey a message about food and it's not always a helpful one. And nor does it necessarily represent the way we eat every day.

While I'm lucky in that I love cooking and experimenting with new flavours and dishes, I don't always have the time or energy to cook at the end of a long day. And while I certainly pay some attention to how I present the food when I plate it up, the pressure to put food on the table means that I don't style it to within an inch of its life. For one thing, the food would be stone cold by the time I was satisfied with how it looked!

This is why I was intrigued by an idea suggested by fellow food blogger Bumbles of Rice. She called on food bloggers to tell their readers just what they had for dinner for five consecutive days. 

So, here is my week in dinners:

Wednesday: Minestrone soup
A solo dinner: which explains why I'm eating early and reading the paper

I usually try to make a batch of soup for dinner once a week.  I always make extra as I mostly work from home during the day and a bowl of soup makes for a quick and easy lunch. It's also a good fall-back option if I'm too tired to cook dinner on another evening during the week.
You can find the recipe for this soup here

Thursday: Jamie Oliver's cauliflower risotto with anchovy breadcrumbs

Forgive the god-awful picture but this is what it looks like when you use your camera phone and  there is no natural light - it is dinner time and February in Ireland after all!

Friday: grilled miso salmon, brown rice and veggies

Once again: the evening light is rubbish
I eat at least three servings of fish every week, with a focus on oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, etc. This ties in with my OMS diet which prioritizes intake of omega 3 fats, which we should all be trying to get more of.

Saturday: Potato and cauliflower curry from Olive Magazine - I adapted this to suit my diet and added this mushroom and spinach dish, some flat breads and yoghurt. (I know it's cauliflower again but it's cheap at the moment and I had lots of it in the fridge!)

Sunday: Pork roasted in the oven with onions, apples and wholegrain mustard served with mashed potatoes, crushed carrots and parsnips and brussel sprouts 

Because my diet means I can't eat meat, my boyfriend rarely eats meat during the week. To make up for this, I usually cook him something meaty on Sundays, serving myself something that is easy to rustle up alongside. On this day, I had a baked mackerel dish with the same sides.
But I forgot to take a picture as we were rushing out to the cinema.

Monday: I had some mashed potato and mackerel left over from Sunday as well as some tuna in olive oil in the cupboard so I used them to make this:

Tuna (and mackerel) fishcakes with parsley and caper salad from Olive Magazine again

(I know this is six days of dinners. But because I forgot to photograph one, I thought you deserved one extra!)

Your daily dinners are probably different to mine. They may not focus as much on fish and vegetables. Maybe you don't have the same amount of time or inclination to cook as I do . You might also live closer to a good takeout or a restaurant where you can eat cheaply and well (8 miles from Dingle town - where most good restaurants are pricey - I don't have such luxuries). Whatever the case, I'd love to hear about your week in dinners.

Friday, February 6, 2015

A good movie, a bad memory and a great cake

I went to the cinema to see The Theory of Everything last weekend. It’s the story of a young woman who falls in love with a young Stephen Hawking and the struggles she faces as they build a relationship, a family and a life together as his body deteriorates and eventually gives way to severe disability.

The two central performances are wonderful and this film is enormously affecting on a personal level. So, I’d recommend that you see it. But I’m not really here to give a film review. I’m here to write about a scene in the film that brought back memories of one of the worst times in my life with MS.

Most of you will know that Stephen Hawking has motor neuron disease, a disease of the central nervous system that leads to progressive disability and ultimately to death. Early in the movie, when he is being tested prior to his diagnosis, he is asked to do a simple task – to touch the thumb of his right hand to each of the fingers on that same hand.

Eddie Redmayne (who plays Hawking) is so convincing at portraying the confusion he feels when he realises he can’t do this.  Later, there’s a look of sheer anguish on his face as he tries to do it again at home. He suddenly understands he can no longer bid his body to do as he wishes. He’s losing control of his physical self.

My stomach churned as I watched this scene and I can feel it churning still. It could have been a scene from my life because my neurologist asked me to complete that same task before I was diagnosed with MS (I suppose it’s a standard diagnostic tool) and I remember the sense of shock I felt when I wasn’t able to do it. Although my brain was thinking the thoughts that had always previously resulted in moving my fingers, I couldn’t make them meet my thumb. My disbelieving eyes saw them miss every time. Despite trying over and over and over again, I couldn’t get them to do what I wanted.

This persisted for the six weeks that the attack lasted. At random moments of every day, I would try to complete the task again only to have my heart sink when I saw that I still wasn’t able to do it.

However, I did eventually recover and was once again able to make my fingers and thumbs do exactly what I asked of them. But I have never forgotten how frightened I felt when I lost control of my body. Sometimes, when I’m sitting at the dinner table or watching TV or being driven in a car, I absentmindedly find myself touching my fingers to my thumb, as if subconsciously reassuring myself that all is still well – that I am still well.

And so far, I have been.

I attribute my continued good health to my diet. And whenever I feel tempted to eat butter, cream and chocolate, I remind myself what it felt like not to be able to use my right hand properly.
I used to have to remind myself of this quite often, especially when I would think of Mary Berry's banana bread - which was once my go-to banana bread in the café and at home. 
But I don't have to control myself with such mind games anymore - at least not when it comes to banana bread. I've come up with a recipe that is not the same as Mary Berry's but it's just as delicious and it packs a much bigger nutritional punch.

I thought I'd share it with you today.
200g mashed ripe bananas* (this will require two to three bananas, depending on their size)
1 tablespoon almond milk
50g olive oil (choose one with a mild flavour)
25g cocoa powder
50g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
75g sugar
60g walnuts, chopped 
20g banana chips, chopped (optional)
3 tablespoons cocoa nibs (optional - especially if you are strict about OMS)
1 egg

  • Preheat your oven to 170 C/340 F.
  • Line a small loaf tin with some baking parchment. I find that the easiest way of doing this is rubbing a left-over butter wrapper over the inside of the tin, scrunching the parchment into a ball with my hands and then using my fingers to shape the parchment to the bottom and sides of the tin. The scrunched-up nature of the paper makes it much more pliable.
  • Combine all of your ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly.
  • Pour into the lined tin and place in the centre of your oven.
  • Cook for 30 to 35 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
Enjoy the cake with a cup of tea (and if you can, go to see the movie!)

* There's no such thing as over-ripe bananas. The blacker they are, the better they will be for baking, producing super-moist cakes.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The simplest of pleasures

There are times when you come across something so obvious that you can't help but slap your forehead in disbelief. You ask yourself how come you'd never thought of it before.

This is what I found myself doing while teaching a cookery class late last year. We were preparing the ingredients for a Thai curry and because some of the students had never used lemon grass before, I passed a blade (is this what we call a piece of lemon grass?) around the room so that they could all see - and sniff - it up close.

I then showed them how to peel off the dry outside layer, bash the remaining layers with a rolling pin to release flavour and fragrance and then chop it up finely for use in the curry.

At which point, someone piped up that they didn't throw the outer layer away. Instead, they added it to ginger peel and water and brewed a tea.

I immediately stopped in my tracks and did as she suggested, brewing a simple and refreshing cup of tea for everyone.

I've been brewing this tea ever since because not only does it have sharp, clear flavours, I've also found it works wonders on winter colds. A drizzle of honey takes it up another notch in the flavour - and health - stakes too.

So, this blog post isn't really a recipe. It's more of a suggestion. 
The next time you're using lemon grass and ginger, don't throw away the peel.
Put it in a saucepan instead.
Cover it with cold water.
Bring it to the boil and simmer for five minutes. 
Allow to cool. (The flavours will infuse even more)
Reheat for a cup of warming and restorative tea.

A cup of tea: it's one of life's simplest yet greatest pleasures. 

It's up to you whether you choose to strain the peel from the liquid or not. It makes no real difference either way.

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